Early on in Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe, three adolescent boys visit a second-hand DVD store. For someone who sells cheap knock-offs in plastic packets, the store-owner has suspiciously good taste. On the walls are posters of films by Quentin Tarantino and Park Chan-wook, and a picture of David Lynch. At the risk of reading too much into what are probably random choices, it occurs to me that, like Tarantino’s second film, Kumararaja’s sophomore effort (he’d earlier directed the neo-noir Aaranya Kaandam) also has three intersecting stories. Like Park, his sense of framing and colour seems to bypass technique and go straight to elemental pleasure. And like Lynch, there’s a leap taken – beyond logic, beyond good sense.
The boys are there to buy porn – 3D porn, no less. After a string of events that seems even stranger when I think back on it, one of them ends up in hospital, badly injured. His mother, Leela (Ramya Krishnan), desperately tries to arrange money for a surgery, while his spiritual guide father, Arputham (Mysskin), leaves it all up to his god. In another story, Vaembu (Samantha Akkineni), stuck in a failing marriage, cheats on her husband. However, when the man she’s having a tryst with dies mid-coitus, she not only has to come clean to her husband, Mugil (Fahadh Faasil, great at playing weakness), but also has to enlist his help in disposing of the body.
In the third – and most resonant – story, Jothi (Gayathrie) awaits the return of her husband after he abandoned her and their infant son years ago. The extended family gathers to meet him, but the person who steps out of the auto is a woman. Jothi is distraught and everyone else horrified, all except young Rasukutty, who’s excited to meet his dad and doesn’t care that she wears a sari and wig. Shilpa, whom we only see post-transition in the film, is played by Vijay Sethupathi. One might reasonably ask if the makers considered casting a trans actor in a trans role – as Aruvi did in 2017. Still, casting Sethupathi, a well-known cis male star, as a transwoman does make some dramatic sense, paralleling the shock of the family at a new avatar of someone they know so well with that of the audience seeing a transformed Vijay. It also helps that Sethupathi embodies Shilpa with great feeling, and without a hint of a wink.
Kumararaja chops these stories up and parcels them out in fragments; it might take two viewings to understand the emotional impact of the order in which they appear. This sort of hyperlink filmmaking brings to mind the Alejandro Iñárritu-Guillermo Arriaga films, especially 2006’s Babel. Yet unlike Iñárritu’s symphonies of interconnected pain, the first 100 minutes of Super Deuxe’s nearly 3-hour runtime might be the most fun any Indian film’s been since Angamaly Diaries. After that, Kumararaja tightens the screws on the audience, introducing a new character, a depraved cop named Berlin. I found the four or five scenes he’s in protracted and difficult to watch – which may have been the director’s intention.
Throughout, the film-making remains dazzling. Kumararaja has chops to spare, shooting elaborate one-take scenes with a static camera, or with a roving camera and actors in motion, or editing the hell out of sequences. Working with cinematographers PS Vinod and Nirav Shah and art director Vijay Adhinathan, he makes colours pop: there’s a lot of yellow in the initial scenes with the boys, Vaembu and Mugil’s apartment is in shades of green, and Jothi and Shilpa’s home is in rich blues and reds. Some of the ideas are perfectly simple, it’s just that he executes them better than most – Shilpa and Rasukutty strolling across the screen, a wall plastered with film posters in the background, is an image I won’t forget soon. There are scene transitions that’ll make you smile. The Star Wars theme is played Carnatic music-style. It’s all very clever.
In places, it’s a little too clever. There’s a big, big swing in one of the storylines which falls completely flat. It also feels like Kumararaja and his co-writers (Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K Sekar), in trying to connect the stories, might have stretched themselves: two scenes in particular have “link" written all over them. But Super Deluxe is too pleasurable and fluent from minute to minute, scene to scene to get hung up on the stuff that doesn’t work.